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In Alamance, nursing homes deal with the pandemic's losses, longing for a 'roadmap' to it all

In Alamance, nursing homes deal with the pandemic's losses, longing for a 'roadmap' to it all

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BURLINGTON — A year ago, Ed Weeks never would have expected his assisted-living facility to look so empty.

Back then, families visited, residents gathered in the movie room, dining rooms were full of chatter and neighbors congregated in the halls to spend time together.

Now, Blakey Hall is quiet and solemn, with just a few residents walking back to the solitude of their rooms.

"Nobody really gave us a roadmap of how to get through a pandemic," Weeks said.

When COVID-19 struck the facility, Weeks and his staff had been bracing for impact. They expected a challenge, but what they didn't expect was the financial and emotional tolls it would take.

Alamance County has eight nursing homes and 17 adult-care homes. All of them have felt the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic for the last year.

Before the pandemic, Blakey Hall in Elon had 63 residents in assisted living. By early February, 16 of those beds were empty.

"We had some people that went to the hospital and quite frankly declined to the point that they didn't come back because they needed to go to a skilled-nursing facility," Weeks said. "I had a family that wanted to move their loved one out to get ahead on the safety side of it ... (and) we did have a couple people that got sick and didn't make it through."

Oaks of Alamance, another assisted-living facility in Burlington, also lost residents from their original count of 62 before the pandemic hit.

"We did have one family who decided to take their loved one home to try to avoid the situation and then we had probably about three or four who had to go to a skilled-nursing facility because they were progressing downward," said Dustin Elledge, an administrator at the facility.

In Asheboro, Clapps Convalescent Nursing Home saw occupancy decline from 93% before the pandemic to 80% as of February.

"The number of admissions we were getting into the building has significantly decreased," administrator Grant Hollowell said.

While the loss of residents is heartbreaking, Weeks said empty beds at the facility are amounting to at least $60,000 lost a month.

A 2020 study conducted by the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living asked 953 nursing home and assisted-living facilities nationwide about their financial challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. The results were grim. The study found that 65% of respondents said their facility was currently operating at a loss.

Blakey Hall, Oaks of Alamance and Clapps Convalescent Nursing Home said they're just breaking even.

In an attempt to fill empty beds and recover lost revenues, Blakey Hall is still accepting new patients. But it's been a challenge.

"Ever since March of last year, people just aren't real excited to move their loved one into a place where they've been told upfront they're not going to be able to see them," Weeks said. "A lot of people are just trying to figure out how to keep them at home or have support in-house until things loosen up."

Oaks of Alamance is also accepting new patients, but Elledge said those efforts are on pause anytime there is an outbreak.

On top of navigating those revenue losses, additional cost burdens have been added as well.

"We've definitely had to work a lot more overtime than usual," Weeks said. "When we were hit in our dementia building with COVID, we had a lot of staff that were sick and not allowed to work either, and so I actually had to reach out to our local Alamance County Emergency Management. ... They sent me CNAs and LPNs and RNs to help me at least stay staffed during the actual outbreak."

Oaks of Alamance also had to outsource additional staffing to prevent burn out.

"While we had COVID in the building, we had to use a temp agency," Elledge said. "We first let (our staff) work overtime, but at a certain point we didn't want to burn them out completely so we brought in extra staff as well."

Masks, gloves and other protective equipment was also a significant cost, especially as prices ballooned. The American Health Care/National Center study reported that 79% of nursing homes and 78% of assisted-living facilities surveyed listed that gear as a top cost.

When supply was limited, Alamance-area facilities had to buy what they could, no matter the price tag.

"We were starting to get worried that we weren't even going to be able to get the supplies that we needed," Weeks said. "We did what we had to do." 

A year into the pandemic, Blakey Hall is quiet and solemn. A few residents are around, casualties of an invisible war they didn't start.

No one is sure when things will get better. Or if they'll get worse again.

The only thing certain about today is that tomorrow may be very different.

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